Beekeeping is a wonderful pursuit with rewards that can undoubtedly outweigh the efforts. But without the right equipment, it can be dangerous - both to the beekeeper and to the bees.
One of the most common goals for any beekeeper is the protection of essential colonies of pollinators that agriculture relies on so heavily.
The other, of course, is to collect honey.
How does the equipment make it easier to keep bees?
The safety and security of both colony and beekeeper are paramount; so when you’re considering beekeeping as a hobby (or a profitable pursuit), the correct equipment helps to ensure that the symbiotic relationship between human and bee remains a balanced one.
The equipment we’ll be exploring in this article is -
- Beekeeper suit
- Beekeeper gloves
- Bee smoker
- Bee brush
- Hive tool
The Beekeeper suit
What are the key features to look out for in a suit?
The beekeeper suit is usually a full body covering, often in a single piece - like a jumpsuit. It has elasticated openings for the hands and feet, with a head veil that protects the face, neck and prevents the bees from creeping into the suit.
The suit's primary purpose is to avoid the sting of the bee. Bees won’t attack you if you’re wearing a suit - but, they will follow you.
Some beekeepers use just a jacket and a veil, but for full protection, a full body-suit is recommended.
The suit needs plenty of pockets so that you can keep your tools close at hand.
A typical suit is made from a polyester/cotton mix, has a detachable and interchangeable hood, and has neck zips and velcro tabs at the neck for additional security.
Waterproof knee patches will make things a little more comfortable during the cold, wet months. The ankle openings should be elasticated or zippable,
What would happen without gloves?
Bees will only attack if they feel that they’re under threat so, strictly speaking, it's possible to handle them without gloves.
For novice beekeepers, gloves are definitely recommended.
Beekeeping gloves can be a little cumbersome - especially the leather style. They can affect the dexterity of the hands, required when carrying out some of the more delicate tasks.
However, for most people, being exposed to bees can be disconcerting, and full body cover is recommended.
What kind of materials are they made from?
Beekeeper gloves were traditionally leather, and with cuffs that stretch as far up the arm as the elbow. However, leather has gone out of favour because the propolis sticks to the leather, and can be a cause of cross-contamination if you’re taking care of multiple hives. Washable leather gloves are available, however.
Leather gloves can be cumbersome - they are likely to have a loose fit on the hands, and can reduce the dexterity of the fingers. Beestings can get stuck in leather gloves, which can be irritating to the colony.
Most commonly these days, people use disposable latex gloves - a little like washing up gloves. Again, they are longer than standard gloves used to keep the hands warm in the winter - the cuff stretches towards the elbow for added protection.
One of the particular benefits of rubber gloves is that they are tighter fitting and give you better dexterity than leather.
Are they all one thickness?
Leather gloves offer the greatest protection against stings, but the sting can get stuck in the pores of the material: this can irritate the colony.
Gloves come in different thicknesses - if you are allergic to bee stings (or suspect you may be), then thicker gloves will provide greater protection. Bear in mind that the thicker the glove, the less natural it feels for the hands; but protection is vital.
What is it used for?
The smoker is a device that’s used to calm down the colony, which is essential if you’re about to go in! The smoke is designed to create cool smoke from smouldering fuel - the cool smoke doesn’t harm the bees.
It’s not entirely understood why bees are calmed by smoke, but the main theory is that it triggers their natural instinct to flee a threatened colony. They gorge themselves on their honey so that they’ll have the energy to search for a new home. When the bees are stuffed with food, they become lethargic and calm - far too slow to attack.
The bee’s principal mode of communication is believed to be smell. Smoke is thought to mask the “alarm pheromones” which are released by guard bees, and so the colony doesn’t attack.
What happens if you don’t use a smoker?
It would be rather foolish to go into your hive without a smoker. No matter how well your bees might know you, the act of opening the hive is a threat, and without placating them first, they are very likely to attack. And that’s rarely pretty.
What does a bee smoker use for fuel?
There are several fuels available for smokers - you, essentially, want a fuel that is going to smoulder slowly, rather than burn quickly.
Sections of hessian sacking, small pieces of kindling, and pine needles make excellent fuels for smokers. Pine needles provide a cold, white smoke.
What is it used for?
A bee brush is used to gently remove bees from a surface, without causing them harm. They have soft bristles to gently encourage the bees to fly away.
The bee brush is usually used to move small numbers of bees - if you need to move large quantities of bees, a bee blower is recommended.
Very little pressure should be applied when using a bee brush - if you press down too hard, you’ll injure the bees, and you could make a mess of the honeycomb.
If honey and propolis stick to the bristles, you can clean them with warm water and a gentle detergent.
What are they made from?
Some beekeepers make their own bee brushes; simply using clumps of grass, leaves or feathers.
Commercially available brushes usually have wooden handles. The bristles are often soft pig bristles, as these are very pliable and will not damage the bees. Pig bristles might not appeal to all beekeepers, however - in this case, brushes are available with synthetic bristles, made from plastic or polyester.
What are they used for?
The hive tool is an easily handled piece of equipment used for loosening hive bodies and frames. They’re used for scraping away excess comb and propolis from the removable parts of the hive and can be used for removing bee stings from the body.
The hive tool comes in 7-inch and 10-inch varieties - they are easily fitted into a pocket in the bee suit.
A brightly colored hive tool is useful because it’s easily found if dropped.
You may need to sharpen the blade of the hive tool now and then - usually annually.
A hive tool that encounters comb and propolis can cause cross-contamination of disease if not cleaned. It’s recommended to clean the device using a flame.
Having the right tools for your beekeeping hobby or profession is essential to protect the colony, the precious comb, the body of your hive, and, of course, you.
The most significant investment is in the hive itself and the bee suit. An average bee suit will cost you around £150.
Some beekeepers use minimal protection, but this is certainly not recommended for novice beekeepers, or for those with allergies that may be triggered by bee stings.
With the right tools, your colony will be happy and productive, and you’ll be safe from stings.